In her article “Girls, Girls, Girls: What the Liberty Movement Desperately Needs,” Caitlyn Bates posed the oft-asked question, why aren’t there more libertarian women? Her response was that libertarians have not succeeded in connecting with women on issues that the two groups generally share opinions on, i.e. gay rights. I agree with Bates that we need to do a lot of work on our marketing and communication strategies, but I think the issue goes deeper than that. I would like to provide a different take on the question at hand by viewing the situation through the lens of oppression.
I would argue that one of the main reasons that there are so few libertarian women is the same reason that there are so few African American, Hispanic, homosexual, and lower class libertarians. People who fall into those categories belong to historically oppressed groups. Let me pause right there. As the feminist philosopher Marilyn Frye wrote in her essay On Oppression, “The word ‘oppression’ is a strong word. It repels and attracts. It is dangerous and dangerously fashionable and endangered. It is much misused, and sometimes not innocently.”
So I am going to spend the majority of this article explaining what oppression is and what oppression is not. In order to determine if a situation is oppressive, one must ask four questions: What specific group is harmed overall? What specific group benefits and what group constructs and maintains these situations? Finally, is it a part of a structure which tends to confine, reduce, and immobilize some group?
Let’s look at some examples. If a man breaks his leg in a skiing accident and must wait in a blizzard for hours before he is rescued, he is not oppressed even though he faces much pain and misery. This is because he did not experience that pain and misery as a result of belonging to a certain group, his experience did not benefit anyone else, nor was his experience part of a larger system of persecution. What about the case of someone who faces societal pressure to wear clothing and maintain a decent level of cleanliness? This would not count as oppression because the social norm applies to everyone, not a specific group of people. We still might deem universal social norms such as these problematic, but we cannot call them oppressive.
So what does count as oppression? Frye argues that all oppressed people experience “double bind” situations. The root of the word “oppression” comes from the verb “to press,” or to catch something between forces, which restrains that thing’s mobility while molding and reducing it. When oppressed people experience double bind situations, their options are so reduced that all of them lead to penalty, censure, or deprivation. Frye uses many of these double bind scenarios to illustrate the oppression of women. In her examples, women are caught between two courses of action, neither of which is deemed “right,” thus constantly encountering “damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t” situations. These include engaging in sexual activity vs. refraining from sexual activity, dressing provocatively vs. dressing conservatively, working outside the home vs. working inside the home, and encouraging men’s flirting vs. discouraging men’s flirting. What all of these double bind scenarios have in common is that they are the result of socially established roles designated for women by and for the benefit of men. These include personal service (the work of maids, cooks, secretaries), sexual service (sexually pleasing men, bearing his children, pleasing men in appearance and demeanor), and ego service (encouragement, support, praise, attention). As a result, women face social pressure when they try to break out of these roles and face gender-specific obstacles that inhibit them in a way that do not inhibit men. As Frye writes, “There is no help with the laundry, no help typing a report at 4:00 am, no help in mediating disputes among relatives or children. There is nothing but advice that women should stay indoors after dark, be chaperoned by a man, or when it comes down to it, ‘lie back and enjoy it.’”
Many will want to respond by arguing that men are oppressed by unfair gender expectations too. For example, most men feel as if they cannot cry in front of other men and must maintain a front of masculinity. However, Frye argues we must return to the question of, cui bono, or who benefits overall from the oppressive structure? For example, some people might want to live in a jail in order to avoid work and lounge about all day without the complications of the “real world.” However, while it is true that prison walls keep outsiders out as well as keeping insiders in, the system benefits outsiders. Insiders are being punished for criminal behavior while outsiders are being protected from perceived threats to their safety. Similarly, the oppressor group might suffer from the boundaries and separations they impose, but the critical difference is that they benefit overall while the oppressed group does not. The other critical difference is that the oppressors enforce the system of the oppression, not the other way around. So while men complain of not being able to cry or show emotion, these standards are largely put in place and enforced by men. Most women respect and look for men who will show their emotions and when men do cry, it is often in the company of women, not men. Men avoid showing signs of “weakness” like crying in order to win the respect of other men, thus boosting their self-esteem and social standing by belonging to this club of masculinity. It is much less clear that women originally put in place and enforce their own oppression for their own benefit.
Just as an oppressor might suffer from the consequences of an oppressive system, the oppressed might benefit in some ways from an oppressive system. Some women do not have career ambitions and would prefer to stay home and raise their children or engage in other domestic duties. However, just because some oppressed people benefit from one aspect of their oppression does not mean they benefit from it as a whole, and it certainly doesn’t mean all people in that oppressed group feel the same way. Therefore, Frye argues, “one cannot determine if someone is oppressed by how loudly or little the person complains”. Indeed, many people unknowingly reinforce the system of oppression that they are victims of. If you want a perfect case study, go watch Mean Girls on Netflix Instant.
How could it be that an oppressed person would not be aware they are oppressed, you might wonder. While oppressed people often recognize on a microscopic level individual events that seem unfair, they fail to see how these events are part of a larger system of oppression. Frye uses a metaphor of a birdcage. She says, “If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. It is only when you step back…and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere.” It is particularly difficult to see oppression when an oppressed group is demographically or geographically dispersed, as with women, since we are never visibly united as an oppressed group and other differences such as race or class serve as distracting or divisive factors.
I think it is also difficult for libertarians in particular to recognize oppression when it is not executed by the state. Historically, classical liberals have supported oppressed groups and the recognition of their rights, such as African Americans in the 1960s. However, they traditionally defend these groups against the state, not society in general. Most libertarians theoretically acknowledge that oppression can come from society and not just the government, but in real life, libertarians rarely talk about social oppression. Perhaps this is because libertarians view political oppression as a more important issue. I think social oppression is just as problematic, but even if you disagree, I would argue the two are interconnected and you can’t solve one without addressing the other.
If a group is socially oppressed but no one recognizes this oppression, it will be much more likely that they turn to the state for what they perceive as their only way of getting help to level the playing field. If we can eliminate or reduce social oppression, governments themselves will lose some of their support and power. Libertarians know this instinctively. How often do we complain about how racial minorities and women are suckered in by government handout programs designed specifically for them while failing to see that the two political parties actually make their lives much worse? Libertarians recognize that through affirmative action and welfare programs, the government unintentionally creates more animosity towards the minority they are trying to help, and the vicious cycle continues to grow. Therefore, until issues of social oppression are recognized and addressed, the government will continue to be widely supported and people will continue to be exploited publicly and privately. Furthermore, until libertarians can win women over to our cause, our ideology will continue to be viewed as it was described in a recent study highlighted in Matt Ridley’s article, “Inside the Cold, Calculating Libertarian Mind”, which found that self-identified libertarians were less empathetic, more logical, and more masculine than people who ascribed to different political ideologies.
So how does one address social oppression? It cannot be solved with the passage of laws. It is only solved by educating people about the issue until there is widespread recognition of the problem. Therefore, I think it is vital to the success of the liberty movement for libertarians to recognize social oppression wherever it exists and to address the problem to others as vocally as we denounce the drug war, American foreign policy, and economic regulation.